Sunni-Shiite Divide

(Bloomberg) -- Christians have their Protestants and Catholics, Jews their Orthodox and Reform. Muslims are split, too, into Sunnis and Shiites. What began as a dispute over who was entitled to lead Islam following the death of the Prophet Mohammad in A.D. 632 led to differing theologies and worldviews for Sunnis and Shiites. The schism has pitted empires, nations and neighbors against each other intermittently for 14 centuries. In the many civil wars in the Mideast today, it is sometimes a driving force and sometimes an aggravating factor. Local struggles are aggravated by the competition between Sunni and Shiite powers Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Situation

Tensions between the regional rivals have escalated since Iran negotiated an international agreement on its nuclear program that released the country from crippling economic sanctions. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has threatened to take the fight “inside Iran,” and leaders in Iran blame the Saudis for helping to foment anti-government protests there that began in late December. Yemen’s civil war has been intensified by the two powers backing opposing sides along Sunni-Shiite lines. Syria’s civil war, sparked by a popular revolt against dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2011, quickly devolved into a sectarian conflagration. Syria’s conflict, in turn, re-ignited the Sunni-Shiite fighting in Iraq that bled that country in the mid-2000s. Since the 2003 ouster of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, when power shifted from minority Sunnis to majority Shiites in a country traditionally seen as a potent force in the Arab world, Sunnis in the Mideast have expressed anxiety about rising Shiite influence. Many Sunnis fear that Iran is trying to establish what Jordan’s King Abdullah called a Shiite crescent, encompassing Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Unease over Shiite power has been exploited by extremist groups, notably the jihadist Islamic State, whose ideology is rooted in Saudi Arabia’s 200-year-old puritanical Wahhabi movement. Wahhabis regard themselves as Sunnis, though many Sunnis consider them outside the fold. The Sunni-Shiite schism also provokes violence between Muslims in such places as PakistanNigeria and Indonesia. About 85 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunnis. Shiites form a majority only in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, which is ruled by Sunni royals. Where Sunnis are a majority or dominate government, Shiites frequently complain of discrimination, and vice versa. According to a 2012 poll, roughly 24 percent of non-Shiites around the world reject Shiites as fellow Muslims; the figure is 7 percent for Sunnis. 

Sunni-Shiite Divide

The Background

Mohammad’s followers quarreled over whether he should be succeeded by a blood relative or someone chosen by the community on the basis of merit. In the event, his companion Abu Bakr was chosen as the first successor, or caliph. The prophet’s cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, the candidate of those who would become Shiites, was selected the fourth caliph in 656. After he was assassinated by a zealot, Shiites followed separate leaders, or imams, from Mohammad’s bloodline, whom they believed were divinely appointed. The schism deepened in 680 when the Sunni caliph’s army killed the third imam, Ali’s son Hussein, an event Shiites mark in an annual rite of mourning. Most Shiites believe there were 12 rightful imams, the last of whom went into hiding in the ninth century and will return as the messiah; subgroups broke off at the fifth and seventh imams. In the absence of an imam, Shiites believe that distinguished scholars are broadly empowered to interpret religious knowledge for the community. Sunnism rejects divine claims on behalf of anyone apart from Mohammad and the other prophets in the Koran. Many Sunnis disapprove of the Shiite practice of revering Mohammad’s relatives — making shrines of their graves and feast days of their birthdays. Sunnis believe religious authority comes directly from the Koran and the traditions of Mohammad. Their scholars have less latitude to interpret Islam.

The Argument

Friction between Sunnis and Shiites undoubtedly arises in part from genuine offense over the others’ beliefs. Yet today’s conflicts are largely fueled by political agendas. The issue is less how Muslims should observe their faith than who should have power. In the case of archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, the support — or perceived support — of one for fellow Sunnis or Shiites elsewhere tends to attract the intervention of the other on the opposite side. Even the unapologetically murderous Islamic State has a political purpose in targeting Shiite civilians. It seeks to sow chaos to destabilize societies in pursuit of its ultimate goal: a global caliphate.

The Reference Shelf

  • Council on Foreign Relations interactive guide to the Sunni-Shiite divide.
  • Netherlands Institute of International Relations report on security and policy challenges in the Middle East.
  • Vali Nasr’s book “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future.”
  • Pew Research Center’s worldwide survey of Muslim opinion on what practices are acceptable in Islam.

First published June

To contact the writer of this QuickTake: Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at

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